The Earliest Texts
Writing did not come into widespread use in India until at least 150 years after the Buddha. Knowledge, especially religious knowledge, was preserved and transmitted orally. This is why the Pāḷi word for study or learning is suta meaning ‘to hear’. A monk would join a congregation, listen to the discourses being chanted and gradually learn them by heart. Brahmans, the hereditary priests of Brahmanism, had perfected mnemonic devices which accurately committed the Vedic hymns to memory with extraordinary accuracy. It is commonly assumed that writing down information transmits it with greater fidelity than memory, but this is not necessarily the case. Before printing, books had to be copied by hand and scribes often made mistakes as they wrote. Over time, as one book was copied from another, mistakes accumulated to the degree that sometimes it became difficult to work out what parts of the original meant. More seriously, a scribe could delete or add passages to the book he was copying which would be included in the next copy, creating confusion when compared with manuscripts without the changes. There are several examples of this in the Bible, the best-known being the story of the woman taken in adultery and the long passage Mark16, verses 9 to 20, neither of which are found in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. Someone added them at a later date.
Human memory on the other hand, particularly if trained from childhood, and in a world devoid of all the distractions we are bombarded with, can be highly accurate. This is exactly what brahmans did. A brahman boy was trained to repeat the Vedic hymns over and over again until they were imprinted in his memory. During various ceremonies, congregations of brahmans chanted the hymns together so that even if one forgot a part or got it wrong, his memory would be jogged or his mistake corrected by the others. This also made it almost impossible for an individual to add or delete anything. A significant number of the Buddha’s disciples were from the brahman caste and they brought these skills to their new religion.1 To help preserve the Buddha’s sermons, they were edited in ways that made them even more amenable to memory. They are replete with repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped passages, standardised terminology, rhyming verses, etc. – one of the reasons that today’s Buddhists find them rather tiresome reading. Thus there is no reason to doubt that the Pāḷi Tipitaka represents an accurate record of what the Buddha taught, and most scholars of Buddhism agree that this is the case.
It is often said that the Tipitaka was first committed to writing in the 1st century BCE at Alu Vihara in Sri Lanka. This information comes from the Dīpavaṃsa, one of the ancient chronicles of Sri Lanka. However, the Dīpavaṃsa actually only records the first time the Tipitaka was written down in Sri Lanka. It was almost certainly committed to writing before this in India, possibly during the reign of King Asoka (268-232 BCE). This king was a devout Buddhist, and very concerned that the Buddha’s teachings should be preserved and disseminated. Most significantly, he made wide use of writing as a part of his public policy. Everything we know about Asoka suggests that committing the Tipitaka to writing would be the very thing he would have done. If this is correct, it means that about 200 years passed between the Buddha’s death and the writing of the Tipitaka. However, another ancient text, the Mañjusrimūlakalpa, says the Tipitaka was actually written down during the reign of Udayibhadda, the son of King Ajātasattu, a contemporary of the Buddha (tadetat pravacanaṃ śastu likhāpayi ṣyativistaram). If this is correct, it means that the Tipitaka was first written only about 30 years after the Buddha’s death, when people who had actually met him were still alive. Whatever the case, even centuries after the Tipitaka was widely available in written form, the tradition of committing it to memory continued, it being considered more reliable.
The Buddhist sacred scriptures are called Tipitaka, ‘the Three Baskets’. Ti, means ‘three’ and refers to the three divisions of the scriptures. Piṭaka means ‘basket’ and was used because in ancient India workers would move earth, grain or building materials with a relay of large, round, shallow baskets. Each would put the filled basket on their head, walk to the next worker, pass it to him, and he would repeat the process. So in the minds of the early Buddhists, the passing of material in baskets from the head of one person to another was analogous to passing the scriptures from the memory of one person to another.
The three ‘baskets’ of the Tipitaka are the Sutta Piṭaka, the Vinaya Piṭaka and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka. The first and most important of these contains the talks, sermons and dialogues of the Buddha plus a few by his male and female disciples. The second part contains the rules for monks and nuns and for the ordering of the monastic community. The Abhidhamma Piṭaka, the third part, is a stripped-down commentary of the major doctrinal themes in the Sutta Piṭaka. It was not chanted during the First Council which was convened several months after the Buddha died, and is not attributed to the Buddha in the text itself although later tradition does so. The material in the Tipitaka is difficult to date but the core material in the Sutta Piṭaka probably comes from the time of the Buddha to perhaps 50 or 100 years after his passing.2 Even the later parts, while perhaps not the actual words of the Buddha, usually reflect his meaning.
Jesus’ teachings are found in the New Testament, the second and most recent part of the Bible. The name Bible comes from the ancient Greek ta biblia which simply means ‘the books’. The New Testament is made up of four sections; the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse. Almost everything attributed to Jesus and concerning his life and mission is found in the four Gospels. Tradition attributes each Gospel to Jesus’ direct disciples- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John- although they are not mentioned as the authors in the Gospels themselves and no scholars accept them as the authors. While writing was widely used in ancient Palestine, Jesus was probably illiterate or at most marginally literate and his direct disciples, except perhaps one, were illiterate, as were almost all ordinary people at the time. Jesus delivered his teachings to individuals or during informal gatherings and nothing he said was ever directly written down. The earliest existing documents mentioning Jesus are the letters of Paul, who never met Jesus although he claimed to have had a vision of him. The earliest of Paul’s letters, 1 Thessalonians, dates from about 20 years after Jesus but curiously does not contain a single quotation from him. As extraordinary as it may seem, in all Paul’s 15 letters he only quotes Jesus’ actual words twice, at I Corinthians 11,24-5 and II Corinthians 12,9, and these quotes are not found in the Gospels. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Jesus’ words had still not been written down, or if they had been, that Paul was unaware of them. Despite this, Paul’s letters make up nearly 25% of the New Testament. The earliest document containing the words of Jesus is the Gospel of Mark, which scholars estimate was written sometime between about 65 and 75 CE, at least 30 years after Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Matthew was written between about 80 and 90 CE, Luke between 85 and 100 CE and the Gospel of John sometime between 100 and 110 CE.
Religions are not static; they are living entities and like all living things they grow and develop, mature and even sometimes become extinct. Buddhism, of course, began with the Buddha’s Awakening experience (Bodhi) and his subsequent 45-year mission. His teaching was committed to memory and transmitted to subsequent generations and as it was explored more deeply, thought about and commented on, disagreements inevitably arouse about how it should be understood. As a result, more discourses (Pāḷi sutta, Sanskrit sūtra) presenting new interpretations were composed, and often attributed to the Buddha himself to give them his stamp of authority. This process of composing new discourses continued for centuries. The Mahāyāna discourses, mainly written in Sanskrit, are examples of this, the earliest such work probably being the Mahayana Saddharmapuṇḍrika Sūtra composed in about the 1st century BCE with parts being added later. While this and most other Mahāyāna texts claim to have been spoken by the Buddha and present many ideas that he did teach, they also contain many doctrinal innovations. As time went on, these innovations became bolder and more distant from the earlier teachings. The biography of the Buddha also grew, with more and more incidents being added. An early example of this would be the Lalitavistara (circa 150 BCE to 100 CE) in which the Buddha is depicted as a semi-divine being performing one astonishing miracle after another.
Just as the Buddha’s teachings were expanded and elaborated over the centuries, so were those of Jesus. Today’s standard Bible contains four Gospels, only a small selection of the many that once existed. Luke, writing sometime between 85 and 100 CE says at the beginning of his Gospel: “Many people have done their best to write a report of the things that have taken place among us… And so because I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you.”3 We do not know what happened to all the “many” other accounts of Jesus that Luke knew and studied and the many that were composed after him, although some have survived. The Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Marcion, the Dialogue of the Saviour, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of Philip, the Prayer of the Apostle Paul, and the Gospel Bartholomew are but some of these other accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. All these works contain things Jesus is supposed to have taught although they present ideas sometimes radically different from those attributed to him in what became the Bible. Some of these and other Gospels were popular and influential for centuries but most either gradually lost their appeal or were suppressed by the church.
Jesus’ biography also grew over the centuries just as the Buddha’s did. The Gospel of Matthew says Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt when he was born but gives no details of what he did or what happened to him while there.4 However, within 100 years of Jesus’ death the first so-called infancy Gospels started to appear recounting his Egyptian sojourn. Some of the miracles they claim he did or which took place in his presence are as amazing and fatuous, as those supposedly performed by the Buddha according to the Lalitavistara and other Mahāyāna texts. There are many of these infancy gospels including the Infancy Gospel of James, the Gospel of Mary, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the History of Joseph the Carpenter, and the Syriac Infancy Gospel. Biographies of people associated with Jesus also circulated. There are several accounts of Jesus’ mother Mary as well as the Acts of Barnabas, the Acts of Peter and Andrew, the Acts of Timothy, and the Acts of the Martyrs. There is even an account of the lives of the three wise men who visited Jesus when he was born, the Revelation of the Magi. Most Christians today have never heard of these sacred texts but they were considered authentic by many early Christians and were widely read.
The question of the authenticity of all these later Buddhist and Christian texts is best left to scholars and historians. Whatever the case, nearly all Christians today accept that the four Gospels of the Bible represent a true account of the life and teachings of Jesus, and all Buddhists consider the Pāḷi Tipitaka to be an actual record of the life and teachings of the Buddha. Consequently, this book will restrict itself to the life and teaching of Jesus as given in the New Testament and the life and teaching of the Buddha as presented in the Pāḷi Tipitaka.
1. C. A. F. Rhys Davids examination of the commentary to the Theragāthā reveals that out of 259 monks 113 were from the brahman caste.
2. See Sujato and Brahmali’s The Authenticity of the Early Buddhist Texts, 2014